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Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I am slightly at a loss as to how to follow the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), but on behalf of the Liberal Democrats may I welcome today's statement and the fact that it rightly places housing and planning much higher up the political agenda? I welcome the admission of failure by the Deputy Prime Minister, but I acknowledge that he was right to say that Governments of all political parties have failed in the past. I welcome many of the proposals in the statement, but I wish to raise some matters of concern.

On refurbishment, why will the money go only to those areas with arm's-length housing corporations? What will be the effect on other parts of the country? The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar mentioned briefly—and I am sure that the Deputy Prime Minister is well aware of this—the scandal of the 750,000 empty properties, including tens of thousands in London and the south-east. Will he acknowledge that it is a great shame that little is said in the statement on that issue?

As 50th anniversaries have been mentioned, the Deputy Prime Minister will be aware that we are about to reach the 50th anniversary of the appalling floods in 1953. He mentioned the issue of sustainability, but can he tell us what protection he will give not only to the green belt but to the flood plains? Does he acknowledge that further building on the flood plains could seriously damage natural drainage patterns?

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I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's remarks about housing benefit, but will he acknowledge that other reforms to housing benefit are urgently needed, not least as the current bureaucracy of the system is of enormous disbenefit to both landlords and tenants?

I welcome many of the arrangements that the Deputy Prime Minister is putting in place for planning. However, I am deeply disappointed that he is still not prepared to budge on the issue of rights of appeal for third parties. He should rethink that issue. While I acknowledge many of the proposals for speeding up major infrastructure project issues, I hope that he will accept that one additional proposal is desperately needed—that the relevant Secretary of State, having received the report from the inspector, makes a quick announcement about his or her decision.

Like the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar, I am deeply concerned about the business planning zones. If they go ahead as currently proposed, they may mean that the very issues of sustainability, and high quality of design and build, will go totally out of the window.

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: I thank the hon. Member for his serious contributions to the debate and for his warm words. On refurbishment, we have tried to bring public and private finance together in those big operations to make public money go further. Like most public-private partnerships, the proposals are controversial, but some organisations have agreed to sign up for the process. We have moneys available for refurbishment of private properties, so funds will not pass only to the arm's-length companies. The scale may be different, because it will involve individual households or one or two private homes, as opposed to a large development.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about empty homes, and I want to look seriously at that issue. Much more could be done by using the empty spaces in urban areas. For example, I encourage private companies to develop space above shops for housing, which has great potential. It is also important to do something about compulsory purchase powers, and that is why I have placed a document on that issue in the Library. We need to develop a comprehensive approach, and I shall make particular efforts in that area.

On the issue of sustainability and flood plains, I would point out that the whole London area is what would be called a flood plain, and even my local area in Hull is designated a flood plain. However, both areas have barriers that have prevented floods in the past. What is critical is proper investment to protect the land, and in the latest announcement on public expenditure we increased the amount to be invested in those areas. Any new development must be protected against floods, because too many have not been in the past. Many changes have now taken place.

I hear what the hon. Member for Bath says about planning. I am disappointed that he feels that I have not gone far enough, as the Conservative spokesman said that I had performed a U-turn. The document notes that third parties have a role to play in inquiries, and it does not outlaw that. However, we are against inquiries being dragged out unnecessarily for the sake of vested interests. The Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions thought that that was wrong, as did everyone consulted.

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The terminal 5 inquiry is often used as an example of how the process can drag on. I grant that that was exceptional, but it is not the only case. We must achieve a proper balance between the right of people who may be affected to have a say, and the public interest. The document in the Library tries to strike a better balance than was suggested in the earlier consultation document.

Sometimes, as Secretary of State, I have taken passages out of my contributions to avoid taking up too much of Parliament's time. A passage that I removed today had to do with something that I have learned through my experience in the job—that the process takes too long once Ministers have been called in and have received a recommendation from an inquiry. I therefore propose to place a statutory enforcement limit on Ministers to ensure that they complete their role in time. I am asking local authorities to modernise, but I also accept that we in the House must do our bit too.

Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish): I thank my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister for listening to the recommendations of the Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions, especially on empty homes and the planning system. That is extremely welcome.

However, does my right hon. Friend accept that a fundamental problem in this country is that there is housing misery in the south-east because of the shortage of homes there, and a surplus of homes in many parts of the north? In his role as Minister with responsibility for the regions, will my right hon. Friend try and find ways to move some of the jobs that do not need to be in the south-east up to the regions? Will he work on getting it across to people that the north-west or north-east are very attractive places to live? If we could move some of the jobs to which I referred, we would be able to match housing and need.

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: I thank my hon. Friend for those remarks. He is Chairman of the Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions, and I always value the advice that I receive from Select Committees—although I admit that I value the advice of some more than others. However, Select Committees play a valuable role in the House in keeping Ministers on their toes when they argue their cases.

I was especially appreciative of the report from the Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions on planning procedures, and I have taken its advice, especially on parliamentary matters. My experience in the House with the legislation for the channel tunnel and the Cardiff bay barrage has convinced me that discussing planning procedures here is not necessarily the quickest way of dealing with them. I took the Select Committee's advice on that.

My hon. Friend made an important point about jobs. As I noted in my statement, the problem goes beyond houses: it includes health, education, transport and jobs. The reports coming out on the new community areas are interesting, in that they make it clear that there is a greater demand for housing when it is associated with economic development. We should plan the lot together. Regional

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development agencies and regional strategies will help us to achieve that—but the Opposition, of course, would abolish RDAs as part of what I understand is their drive against Stalinism.

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): The Deputy Prime Minister referred in his statement to the four areas that he has designated as having potential for very high growth, of which my constituency of Ashford is one. Although existing problems include an inadequate transport infrastructure, local health systems that cannot cope with the growth already taking place, and increasing problems with local schools, the interim results of the study to which the right hon. Gentleman referred have identified severe problems with the long-term supply of water, and suggest that much of the proposed new building would have to take place on the flood plain. If the right hon. Gentleman chooses to go for the high-growth option in and around Ashford, is he aware that he will be convicted of environmental vandalism in my part of Kent, and that the consultation exercise that he has indulged in for the past year will look like a complete sham?

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: I certainly hope that people do not think that. I am serious about consultation. Securing a step change such as I propose requires the co-operation of the people affected. No one gets such matters 100 per cent. right, but consultation must be taken seriously. The purpose of the studies and reports is to make an assessment of the situation, and to give people choices so that a debate can begin. That is exactly what I want to do.

As regards Ashford, I take the point about the importance of infrastructure. Indeed, it applies generally. Anyone who looks at the new areas will see the investment in the transport infrastructure. That is almost the first requirement. As we know, Ashford has the channel tunnel rail link, which I was able to renegotiate after it had collapsed under the previous Administration. It will give us 50 per cent. more capacity on the lines coming into London, but we need to back up the infrastructure from Ashford. It does suffer from water shortages, although I recall visiting it during the floods. The problems of flood plains must be taken into account. I do not want to build in areas that face that threat. That is why extra resources are provided. I understand that Kent county council has made it clear that that is one of the areas for expansion. I want to have proper discussions about that.

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